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We need to know what's going on in B.C. forests
By Jim Stirling
The chickens are coming home to roost.
The horrific January explosion and fire that killed two workers and injured 19 others, and destroyed the Babine Forest Products sawmill near Burns Lake, is revealing what little we really know about the composition of public forests in the British Columbia Interior.
Hampton Affiliates, Babine’s owner, needs an accurate profile and location of timber available to them in the mid and long term to help justify the cost of redesigning and rebuilding its stricken sawmill.
But there’s evidence enough to suggest we don’t have the necessary quality of inventory data to accurately predict what’s been going on out there—let alone project into the future.
This is especially true given the profound impacts of the mountain pine beetle epidemic on the region’s tree growing capacity in a warming climate.
One of the reasons we don’t have all the necessary data is successive government cuts to staff and money at the ministry of forests. It’s made it that much harder for the organization to fulfill its mandate as steward and watchdog of the public’s interests in their forests.
Computer modeling has replaced on the ground auditing, observations and measurement. But computer modeling clearly has its limitations. Ministry modeling in 2006 was predicting an 86 per cent mortality in lodgepole pine stands by 2013 as a result of the beetle epidemic. But things have changed as Jim Snetsinger, B.C.’s chief forester, told the audience at the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association annual general meeting in February.
MoF’s 2011 models now indicate the beetle will kill about 61 per cent of susceptible pine by 2021. It’s probably imprudent, therefore, based on that evidence, to invest tens of millions of dollars in a new sawmill based upon a computer model’s interpretation.
Meanwhile, the forest service is proceeding with what it’s calling a timber supply analysis in the Burns Lake region to help provide Hampton with some clarity.
A new Annual Allowable Cut for the Lakes Timber Supply Area was set last July. It indicated cut reductions in light of the beetle supply falldown. Local native bands around Burns Lake are seeking tenure on uncommitted forest lands to make available, in part, to Hampton. The Burns Lake Native Development Corporation has had a small ownership stake (about eight per cent) in Babine Forest products since the mill was built in 1974-5.
The effects of successive provincial governments gutting their ministry of forest’s ability to properly do its job was further highlighted in a report released in February. John Doyle is B.C.’s auditor-general and he found the province’s forest management performance lacking in several critical areas. One of Doyle’s more damning conclusions was the provincial forest ministry’s lack of clearly defined timber objectives.
And further, what management practices there are in evidence are not keeping pace with changes to the land base in terms of timber supply and declining biodiversity. To compound that sorry state of affairs, Doyle reported that monitoring was insufficient to measure whether what management objectives exists are in fact being met.
What he was describing is a ship without a rudder. If more were needed, Doyle said NSR forest lands are far outstripping recent reforestation levels. He reckons there’s 1.1 million hectares out there now in need of reforestation. The auditor-general noted that when planting does take place, it’s predominantly with lodgepole pine seedlings.
Doyle’s report recommends developing a stewardship plan with its objectives clearly defined; creating a reforestation program to meet those objectives and developing performance measures to assess progress or lack thereof.
Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, who inherited most of the ministry’s problems, naturally disagreed with some of Doyle’s analysis and conclusions. He estimates the province is on the hook to finance replanting of a ‘mere’ 250,000 hectares of forest land. Doyle’s estimate, remember, was 1.1 million hectares.
Thomson added that Doyle’s analysis failed to recognize what the province is trying to do with managing beetle killed forests. Wood deemed unsuitable for conversion to lumber may still retain value for other purposes, like a feedstock for bioenergy products. Thomson also took issue with Doyle’s contention that when forest companies replanted, as they are contractually required to do under the terms of their licences, they do so primarily with lodgepole pine seedlings, regardless of the species harvested. Planting lodgepole pine makes sense from the forest companies’ perspectives. The seedlings are competitively priced, grow speedily when properly planted and reach free to grow stage faster than other species fulfilling the forest companies’ obligations.
The minister also responded to some of Doyle’s other observations and conclusions. “Overall, (Doyle’s report) identified the need to do inventory work. And we accept the recommendation that we need to provide the transparency, the reporting out on it. We don’t necessarily agree with some of his conclusions in terms of estimates and numbers,”
Thomson was quoted in press reports. “We are confident we have programs in place that meet our objectives.”
Unfortunately, the facts related to the Liberal government’s emasculation record of its 100 year old forest ministry and its responsibilities speak much more eloquently. And the past inaction leads to a sadly inevitable conclusion: the government in Victoria views publicly owned forest lands and the industry and communities they sustain as yesterday’s wealth generator and priority.
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